Archived News Item

Farewell to Star of the Sea, Yamba

On Friday afternoon, November 21, sisters began to gather at Yamba to remember and give thanks for 108 years of Mercy presence at 17 Clarence Street, Yamba. December 12, the anniversary of the founding of the Mercy Congregation in 1831, will see the new owners take possession of the site.

In 1900, the Sisters of Mercy went from Grafton to found a branch house at Yamba. Their first home overlooked Convent Beach – not its official name but identified as such by the locals who continue the tradition.

The sisters did much pastoral work in Yamba and Iluka and surrounding areas and ran a school with boarding facilities for primary school boys; they were very much part of the fabric of life in Yamba.

In 1910 they moved to the present site. The land was purchased by Mother Mary Aloysius Donegan who had been professed for only six months when she left Bermondsey for Grafton in November 1883.

In the 1970s the original convent and boarding school were replaced by a new building intended as a holiday house for the sisters. Very quickly it was transformed into a retreat and conference centre; as it grew in popularity additions were made and upgrading of facilities was required on a fairly regular basis. Eventually, a review was carried out and in consultation with the sisters, the Leadership Team decided it was time to move on. The process for ensuring a sale began; it will conclude on December 12 when the new owners take possession.

As the final surrender of Star of the Sea draws closer, we needed to ritualise our sadness in a special way; as a community, we wanted to give thanks to God for what Yamba has been for us and for its place in our Mercy story.

On Saturday morning we spent time remembering the personal and communal blessings associated with Yamba. The old convent, the boarding school for boys, a holiday house, a retreat and conference centre – all have been part of our experience of this beautiful place.

Memories of sisters who shared our Mercy life in Yamba, children who attended the school, guests at the retreat and conference centre, our jubilee celebrations, holidays in the days we wore full religious habit on the beach evoked tears and laughter.

In the evening we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King and reflected on the Gospel story of the last judgement; it captures so well the essence of our Mercy charism. Later, joys and sorrows mingled again as we shared more memories over our final meal together at Star of the Sea.

The wedding feast at Cana – traditionally our Gospel reading for the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy – focussed the farewell to Star of the Sea on Sunday morning. Colleen Brady prepared the ritual to help us reflect on the way the ordinariness of our human lives mingles with the gift transformed in the Eucharist. At Star of the Sea so much has been ordinary – everyday hard work, the kind word, the smile, the patient listening to sorrows, the healing power of the beautiful environment. Like water mixed with wine, pain has been transformed for so many who have experienced healing during their time at Yamba. The ritual began outside the chapel where the beauty of creation was acknowledged as part of the gift Yamba has been for us. Then we moved inside to the chapel, the sacred place that has drawn so many into the Mystery hinted at in the extraordinary power and beauty that abounds in Yamba.

Fran Kuhn, Director of the Centre, and Barbara Bolster, Congregation Leader, had organised for each sister to receive a small memento of Star of the Sea. During the ritual, wine glasses decorated with the centre logo were presented to each sister; from these we drank the fruit of the vine mixed with water. Gifts of our heritage as Christians and Sisters of Mercy, ritual and symbol continue to awaken us to the wonder of God’s presence in our lives and the hope we hold as followers of Jesus.

We say farewell to a much-loved home and ministry centre but the spirit of mercy, the spirit of Catherine McAuley will continue to enrich our world. We caught a glimpse of this in the thoughtful kindness of the staff at Star of the Sea Centre. They had presented to Fran, as a gift for the sisters, a picture frame containing an image of the old convent and one of the centre as it is today. At our final meal, Fran passed it on to Barbara for us all. We now look forward to the unfolding of God’s love and mercy in a future ‘full of hope’. 

From: Sister Colleen Rhodes RSM (Local Communications Facilitator, Grafton)

Editor’s note: The following poem was written by Gunnedah Sister of Mercy, Judith Carney at Yamba, April 2008:

Homeward Bound
(For Grafton Sisters of Mercy)

Wild whirling winds whisk waters high,
showering shorelines with salty spray,
buffeting sailors struggling to moor their tiny skiffs.
As dusk descends the great beacon beams the way
to ships still pushing hard for coastal harbours
where hearts are readied for homecoming
to family hearths aglow with welcome warmth
and ease at journey’s end.

“Star of the Sea”, lamp trimmed by faithful Mercy women,
shines still and steadfast on the Convent hill.
Ever a welcoming haven for tired and hurting hearts,
this sacred “Star” illumines the ongoing journey
for all who long for ultimate landfall
to infinite blessedness.